Extreme metal is an umbrella term, somewhat loosely defined, for a number of related heavy metal subgenres that have developed since the 1980s. Though the term does not refer to any specific style or sound, it most commonly refers to music which is either a member, or incorporates elements of, genres such as thrash metal, black metal, death metal and arguably doom metal.
Though not well-known to mainstream music fans, extreme metal has influenced an array of musical performers inside and outside of heavy metal, and thrives in various intensely devoted subcultures.
"Extreme" can be meant to describe any of the following traits: music (whether it's intended to be faster, more aggressive, abrasive or "heavier" than other metal styles), lyrics (dealing with darker, more salacious or sensational topics and themes), vocals (which often use guttural, harsh or abrasive singing), or appearance and stage demeanor (using corpse paint, satanic or occult imagery). In general, the "extreme" label is most commonly applied to bands whose music is extreme; for example, few would consider Kiss or Alice Cooper to be extreme metal, though they could be considered to employ "extreme" elements in their appearance and stage demeanor for their time.
According to ethnographer Keith Kahn-Harris, the defining characteristics of extreme metal can all be regarded as clearly transgressive: the "extreme" traits noted above are all intended to violate or transgress given cultural, artistic, social or aesthetic boundaries.
Given the vagueness of existing definitions and considering the limitations such definitions have, there are many artists for whom the usage of the term "extreme metal" is a subject of debate. Generally the term is used to describe bands that incorporate elements of thrash, black, speed and death metal, but defy the ability to be put in any of these or, alternatively thrash bands who took on a more brutal approach to their music. A good example would be Celtic Frost, who despite being heavily rooted in thrash and speed metal, also incorporated elements of doom metal and would later go onto inspire early death and black metal.
Though songs in traditional heavy metal may be louder, harsher or more abrasive than rock and roll in general, the underlying elements of melody, harmony and rhythm are generally similar to those in rock and pop music.
However, extreme metal tends to depart from these structures so drastically that Kahn-Harris notes that to the uninitiated, extreme metal can seem like incomprehensible, overwhelming noise despite the presence of recognizable vocals and instruments. Melody -- one of the key elements of popular music -- is often of less importance, or absent entirely. Extreme metal songs rarely have the central focus of a melodic "pop hook," and when present, melodic elements more typically provide an instrumental backdrop.
Perhaps the most important identifying characteristic of extreme metal is the vocals. Singers in extreme metal utilize various extended techniques to create vocals that can be very rough, guttural and bestial (the "death grunt" or "growl"), or can be a high-pitched shrieking. Some vocalists also use relatively conventional singing (called "clean vocals"), though just how "clean" these vocals are varies widely. Usually if clean vocals are used they consist of harsh shouts and snarls. Vocalists can use one or more techniques, and some bands have multiple singers, each specializing in one type of vocal.
Extreme metal is also characterized by its unusual tempo, which may range from very fast-paced -- death metal and thrash metal can occasionally approach the extraordinary range of 300 beats per minute -- to the extremely slow, as in funeral doom and drone metal. Drummers often utilize double bass drumming and blast beats, though not all make use of these techniques. Kahn-Harris notes that many extreme metal drummers take great pride in creating and playing drum patterns that are complex and demanding.
Guitars in extreme metal are commonly distorted to create a thick, heavy tone, similar to industrial metal. Guitars are frequently tuned below the standard E: thrash metal and black metal usually tune a half or a whole-step down, and death metal and doom metal often tune even lower. Seven-string guitars (rather than the more common six-string guitars) are not unusual in extreme metal, particularly in death and doom metal; the seventh string is often tuned to a very low B-note. Kahn-Harris notes that extreme metal tends to defy the "riff-guitar solo" paradigm of heavy metal: Guitar solos are often of less importance in extreme metal than in earlier metal styles, and the chord progressions (or "riffs") in extreme metal are often very fast, unusual, complex and demanding.
Below is a basic summary explaining how the three primary extreme metal genres evolved:
- Heavy metal (early 1970s)
Heavy metal music was developed in the late 1960s as a louder, more emphatic version of blues rock. Metal pioneers like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple all had strong roots in blues rock, and though heavy metal was often harsher than its predecessor, it often retained a strong blues feel, frequently covering well-known blues songs.
By the 1970s, some musicians in metal were drifting away from the music's blues roots, like Judas Priest and Motörhead. The most notable development was the so-called "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" (NWOBHM), with groups like Iron Maiden, Saxon, and others refining and further developing metal. The music often still used blues-inspired chord progressions, but the instrumental techniques and vocal styles had a severely reduced blues feel.
The NWOBHM group Venom are widely considered the single most important group in the creation of extreme metal. Though critics have often characterized Venom's musicianship as mediocre or worse, the band was nonetheless hugely influential: their songs were among the fastest of their era, with harsh vocals and blatantly Satanic imagery. Their albums Welcome to Hell (1981) and Black Metal (1982) are widely regarded as foundational influences on extreme metal. Venom's members also took on stage names intended to help create a menacing persona. Though the practice is not universal, many extreme metal musicians have similarly taken on stage names.
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the development of speed metal and thrash metal, two distinct but nonetheless closely related styles that both drew influence from punk rock (particularly the emphasis on very fast tempos, 2/4 or implied 2/4 time, and brief songs found in hardcore punk), along with a strong NWOBHM influence. The "big four" of thrash metal (the American groups Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica) proved that extreme metal was a commercially viable force. Slayer's Hell Awaits and Reign in Blood are considered important for the birth of extreme metal, in particular for death metal and teutonic thrash metal.
Mid 1980s and beyondEdit
According to Kahn-Harris, the mid-to-late 1980s saw vital new developments: death metal and grindcore. Though rooted in earlier styles of extreme metal, grindcore and death metal both are partly defined by ragged, "growled" vocals that can be incomprehensible, particularly to those unfamiliar with the music. These vocal techniques had little precedent, and at least partly marked deliberately anti-commercial stance. Black metal developed slightly later, and is characterized by shrieking, high-pitched vocals. While Kahn-Harris somewhat describes doom metal as an extreme metal sub-type, it is unusual in comparison with the other genres listed. Traditional doom metal draws no influence from speed metal or thrash metal, is markedly slower than all other extreme metal styles, and is influenced by heavy metal from before the NWOBHM emerged.
Extreme metal earned an unprecedented level of international mainstream attention in the early and mid-1990s. Some of the attention was positive, expanding the music's audience (Earache Records secured a now-defunct distribution deal with Columbia Records; MTV increased the number of extreme metal music videos they played), but other attention was negative: most notably when some of the Norwegian metal community were implicated in a variety of violent crimes. There were a string of arsons, with dozens of centuries-old Norwegian Christian churches damaged or destroyed; musician Varg Vikernes killed fellow musician Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth; Mayhem vocalist Dead killed himself; and drummer Bård Faust of Emperor killed a homosexual man.
As of 2007, extreme metal has been used to describe a wide array of performers and music styles. There are a dizzying variety of sub-genres, often defined by very subtle differences that are not always apparent to novice listeners. Kahn-Harris notes that the use of the term "extreme metal" can sometimes be contentious among fans, and a particular band's or style's categorization can be hotly debated: for example, deathcore and crossover thrash, while influenced by extreme metal, are often thought of as being closer to hardcore punk or metalcore than extreme metal. However, Kahn-Harris also notes that many musicians and fans see such debates over style and genre as useless and unnecessary, or at least as given undue attention.
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